On September 21st, we were made aware that Radio 4 would be doing a phone in all about ME/CFS. So, mum, dad and I sat in the kitchen and listened in and I have to say, my reaction was not necessarily what I was expecting.
I assumed that the show was probably picking up on the fact that there has been quite a bit of press attention towards ME/CFS recently because NICE have ordered a review of the “treatments” available. Because of research I have done, I was aware that there are many people who suffer with ME, around 200,00 in the UK and there are only two therapies recommended by the NHS- GET (graded exercise therapy) and CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy.)
The phone in involved many people contacting Radio 4 and giving their experiences of ME and talking about the support and treatments they have tried or been recommended. And that’s where I was astounded, the sheer quantity of people they had contacted them was overwhelming and each person they spoke to or read out an e-mail from was so devastatingly sad, hopeless and in many ways negative. Yes, in some ways I found it encouraging that it’s not just me that has experienced the lack of knowledge around the illness from health professionals, that treatment options are sparse and that language used towards us is often belittling and derogatory. That I am not the only one suffering the way I do on a daily basis and feeling like they’re getting nowhere.
But what I found most frustrating was the views they put across about GET and CBT. Now, I am not a specialist on this and would never claim to be. Everyone’s experiences will differ and depending on the outcomes of said treatments, people will have different opinions on their worth. I am well aware there is no “cure,” and I know that there are many differing levels of suffering with ME and that I am by no means at the severe end of the scale. But that’s what’s tough, my level of suffering is bad enough so to imagine it being worse is unthinkable.
I won’t be commenting on GET as I haven’t any experience of it but as you may know if you have read my previous blogs, I have been given a course of CBT on the NHS. Even though I had heard some negative connotations around it, I really am a – ‘anything is worth a try’ kinda gal so purposefully didn’t do too much research as I wanted to go in with an open mind. Therefore to listen to so many people’s stories of how it hasn’t worked for them, made them worse etc made me fearful for those who have been offered CBT and haven’t yet started.
I am ten sessions in and am still totally undecided on how I feel about it. It’s hard. It’s emotional and in some ways I have had to take steps backwards BUT I can see the reason why it is suggested as something to support ME sufferers. It has not made me better but it has helped me to “cope” a little more and supported me in terms of learning how to pace myself properly – before was all guess-work and I didn’t know what was best. I am lucky that I immediately hit it off with my therapist. I like her but more importantly, I trust her. She hasn’t once fed me the optimistic bs that so many doctors and specialists have over the past two years, she hasn’t guestimated how long it may take to make improvements and she hasn’t once made me feel stupid or that it’s all in my head.
My mind is still divided and in some ways uncertain as to some of the things we do – sometimes I think if I have to fill in one more bloody diary sheet I might scream!! I am not for one minute saying no one should be negative about CBT because believe me, I’ve had my moments. It isn’t a cure but you know what, if it’s the only thing that can be offered to me then I’d be silly to not give it my all and put my trust in her.
I spent the entirety of my last session talking to her about the Radio 4 programme. She hadn’t heard it but was interested in my thoughts and feelings. I admitted it had made me doubt the CBT process and feel terribly upset and worried that if it doesn’t help me, there aren’t any other options and it had made me feel hopeless. I also expressed my deep sadness for those about to start CBT or those who are only a few sessions in who may have tuned into the programme. At that stage you are so vulnerable and it could totally tip you over into the frame of mind to approach CBT negatively from the start and that surely leaves you in a worse off position than going in open-minded?
I explained how I worried that our sessions were very much based around unhelpful thinking patterns and that although I understood that helps my mental state, ME isn’t a psychological illness, it isn’t in my mind and that made me sad to think that is how I was potentially being viewed – as nuts. Or as it was expressed on the show, an over emotional female who can’t cope!
My therapist then took time to explain how she 100% knew that ME was not a psychological illness. How she’d worked with people who were bed bound, had seen the pain and other obstacles that her patients have to deal with first hand and that she would never want me to think that she thought of me as mad! Once again she reiterated that she could make no promises with my recovery but that everything we do is with the aim to improve upon the way I live my life day-to-day right now. And that may be simply by increasing my daily activity by five minutes and she would be excited by that. Then we discusses my brain – a scary thing I can tell you! There is so much in the press about mental health which is so brilliant and she explained that although ME most certainly is a physical illness, the psychological fall out is just as real. The impact that ME has on your life is beyond explaining, I still struggle to fully explain the pain and frustration that lies behind my smile and the tears that are always ready to pour – to most it either looks like I’m fine or on the flip side that I’m in a mood (sometimes that’s true but mostly I cope by either smiling or being quiet because words just aren’t enough.)
I am slowly learning that my brain is just as in need of treatment as any other part of my body. If my arm broke, I’d get a cast, if my eye sight starts to go, I’d get glasses, if I hurt my back, I’d get physio. So when my mind is put under stress and strain, why shouldn’t I seek help through therapy? And there in lies the beauty of CBT. I can talk to someone who knows ME like the back of her hand, I’m not saying they all do, but luckily, my therapist is first class. She understands my symptoms and she helps me, asks me what I want to talk about, what I want to aim for, what my ultimate hope is for my illness and the treatment and slowly, gradually we work together to try to aim for that.
We make and monitor targets. I needed to know if and when I should push myself. I have totally reverted to being a teenager again and feel terrible guilt if I don’t achieve my targets or have to turn up saying, “Sorry, I didn’t do my diaries this week because, well, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.” It’s awful, I feel like I’m going to get detention! But that’s something to work on because as you may have guessed, she doesn’t get mad, she doesn’t berate me. She tells me I know my body and mind the best. I know when I can push myself to achieve those targets we set, there is no point adjusting them or pushing for them if they will make it harder than it already is on a daily basis. Now that doesn’t mean she doesn’t push me to some extent but she pushes me within or jsut slightly beyond my limits and always does so with care and consideration. She is always at the end of an e-mail and replies quick as a flash and has supported me in so many other ways outside of the therapy room, in ways no one else has done before. I tell you, this woman really is top class.
It’s hard to see any progress, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes and I know I get blindsided by time and milestones i.e. it’s nearly two years since I’ve been home and I feel just as stuck and possibly even sadder than I did back then. But at the end of the last session, she sensed that the Radio 4 programme had popped a seed of doubt into my mind so we got out my targets and charts from when I first met with her.
Over ten sessions (24 weeks) I have upped my daily activity by 20 minutes, this doesn’t seem by much but when most of the activities I do link to crafts – using scissors and using my hands, well, that hurts quite considerably so, yeah – 20 minutes is a lot! I have reduced my daily sleep allowance to 2 hours (not achieved on many days, but on more than not) and when I achieve my ‘get out of the house daily’ (not met on 6/7 days this week, hangs head in shame) I can walk for 15 minutes without needing to stop or get home. I have also started to drive once a week, 5 minutes down the road to get to my reflexology sessions which is the biggest thing for me because I feel like that gives me some independence. I find it daunting and scary because I haven’t driven for so long and I am very aware of my capabilities or lack of them!
So, in actual fact, I have made progress. Yes, I may have achieved these without CBT but I reckon, for me, it would have taken a lot longer because I wouldn’t have known the best way, the safest way, the way which would help me most.
As I said at the beginning, this is my own personal experience and I know not everyone will be as lucky as me to have a therapist so experienced and so wonderful. But I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you haven’t started CBT yet or are nervous to, try not to be. Everyone’s experiences are different. It’s important to be honest, yes, and it’s brilliant to take advantage of that online community because you get so much support through it and learn a lot, however, as we know all too well, online communities can also have a flip side. It’s a safe place to moan and vent, I’ve done it! But that doesn’t mean it should cloud your experience. In the week between listening to the show and seeing my therapist I spent a lot of time online looking into others experiences with CBT and honestly, I only found one or two positive ones. I then felt bad, guilty almost that in some ways I am finding comfort from it. I’m not stupid, I know it won’t cure me, but I am realistic in that it helps me and I’m okay with that, it’s the closest I’ve got so far with any kind of proper help.
So accept those NHS sessions if you’re lucky enough, like me, to be offered them. And if like me, you weren’t aware that you could get access to sessions on the NHS, ask about them, request them, because who knows, you might actually find some benefit from it like I have. I certainly hope so anyway. This blog all began because I wanted share my experiences with alopeica but I think it is so important to share the good alongside the bad. Sharing positive experiences is so important, so please, if you’ve had a positive experience of CBT, let me know, comment below or send me a message, I’d love to hear about it.
Have a good Friday and a lovely weekend,